A 21st century Florida dairy farm: No poop allowed

At Woody Larson’s Okeechobee dairy farm, cows spend their days in an open-sided barn where fans and sprinklers keep them cool and a sandy “beach” provides a place to rest.
At Woody Larson’s Okeechobee dairy farm, cows spend their days in an open-sided barn where fans and sprinklers keep them cool and a sandy “beach” provides a place to rest. Miami Herald Staff

More than half a century ago, when Woody Larson’s father started a dairy farm in South Florida, cows grazed on verdant pastures between trips to the milking parlor.

On the 21st century farm, not so much.

For Larson, who operates two dairy farms with his sons on a spread with 4,000 cows just north of Lake Okeechobee, waste production is nearly as big a concern as milk production. Every bit of waste, solid and liquid, that produces marsh-choking phosphorus is flushed into a recycling system, filtered and treated. The treated wastewater is then sprayed on grass that is mowed, stashed in silos and fed back to the cows.

“That’s the closed loop,” says Larson. “It’s been an evolution.”

And an ongoing struggle for ranchers, farmers and water managers. With phosphorus levels still three and four times target levels in Lake Okeechobee, the lake is not much cleaner.

As early as 1986, dairy farmers were targeted as the chief source, with the state setting strict new rules. Larson now believes the measures were needed, but said the early days were rough. The state established rules, he said, but provided little help in following them.

“Some dairy farmers literally risked their business and failed,” he said. “It was too expensive. Their businesses couldn’t survive it. It was sad.”

Larson’s cows now spend their days in vast, open-sided barns, called a freestall, where they mingle under fans and sprinklers. When they get tired, a lane of sand down the middle of each stall, called the beach, provides a soft bed. Three times a day, they trundle into a milking parlor Larson built two years ago that allows 80 cows to be milked at once. Milk is piped into vats, temperature-treated and pumped into tankers to be bottled, at a rate of about 21,000 gallons a day.

Waste is tightly controlled. Even the sand where the cows bed down gets recycled.

Not far from Larson’s farm, rancher Wes Williamson operates a third-generation ranch. With only one cow and calf grazing on every five to 10 acres, a cattle operation produces far less phosphorus, but is still closely monitored, Williamson said.

“If we’re harming a resource that belongs to the people of the United States or Florida, the Everglades, that can’t continue,” he said.

Williamson said ranchers keep a phosphorus budget, regularly testing grass and soil for nutrient levels. To try to reduce phosphorus, Williamson has planted more trees to shade his herd of Brangus — a mix of Scottish Angus and Indian Brahman — so they don’t cool off in ponds or creeks where their waste might reach water flowing into the lake.

But there’s still one source Williamson said he can’t control that puts more phosphorus on his land than feed or fertilizer or waste: rainfall.

“Even if I have a pristine piece of land, you’re still going to have phosphorus that runs off that,” he said.

Critics complain that farming operations designed to cut nutrients such as phosphorus, called best management practices, do too little. Larson and Williamson contend advances have been made, but legacy phosphorus — what’s been trapped in the soil for years — presents a bigger problem. And both wonder about what the alternative would be.

“Just imagine what this would look like with houses all over it,” Larson said as he drove his pick-up alongside an emerald green pasture. “So which do you want?”

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